Brad sat at a long wooden foldout table scarred with scratches through the varnish and into the wood. Like a bear had pawed at it, vague, indecipherable. And deep. In the musty shadow in back of the garage, he felt cool and anonymous. Out in the sun, a few children were hula-hooping poorly, hoops clattering to the cement in short intervals, which only prompted the shared laughter of futility among them. Except for one lithe girl who had mastered it, gracefully swooshing the hoop around her waist, despite invisible hips. Her whole body snaked effortlessly. She frowned at the other girls as if she were jealous of their ineptitude.
“Look at that,” Brad said, pointing with his cold, slippery beer bottle at the girl. He was trying to remember the name of the woman next to him, a childhood friend of Donna, the graduation girl, the first in her family to make it through college. An official four-year bachelor’s degree, even if it was in social work.
Brad wanted to say that he’d felt like that hula hooper when he was in high school. That he was smart and bored, and embarrassed about being smart. How he’d sunk from the college-prep classes into the mid-level classes to hang out with his friends and get high in the parking lot. But he thought that’d make him sound like an asshole, making excuses for what he was doing now—working in the Ford plant and hanging out in the parking lot getting high.
“What?” she said. Their legs were sweating against each other under the table. She wore a short jean skirt and a tight pink t-shirt with glitter on it. He leaned a leg harder against hers and she returned the pressure.
“Can that girl hula hoop or what?”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” she said. She drained her own beer and freed herself of the angled wooden folding chair stenciled in black with ST MARKS on the back, like all the others. In a moment, she picked up one of the fallen hula hoops and swung it around her very real hips. She was magnificent, nearly obscene, in her wide, wild gestures, grinding against the air as if trying to save herself from being pulled down into quicksand.
“You’ve got yourself a live one there,” a man with a nearly obscene potbelly said, saluting Brad with his beer. He stood nearby, leaning back into a stack of snow tires. They were all drinking Pabst 12-oz returnable bottles pulled from a dented tub full of melting ice just inside the garage.
“Living the good life,” Brad said, saluting him back, though it wasn’t true. He felt the lowest he’d been in years. At twenty-five, he sensed that he was turning some blind corner, and he was afraid of what he’d run into when he made the turn. He had shredded all the labels off their row of empty bottles—easy to do when they were wet like that.
The woman had disappeared inside herself into that hula hoop. The young girl was smiling now that she was not alone in her hooping ability. The other girls had stopped to watch them both in awe.
“Show-off,” Donna, said as she passed, on her way into the house with an empty tray of crumbs to refill with something—hot dog buns, cookies, cake. Seemed like everybody had contributed something except Brad. He still had the card for Donna in the back pocket of his jeans, damp with sweat now.
“I’m Uncle Ed,” the man said, approaching, extending his hand. “What brings you here?”
“Brad,” he said, taking the man’s hand firmly. “I’m a friend of the bride.”
Uncle Ed laughed. “I’ve seen that one before,” he said, gesturing at the woman. It was like their beer bottles were directional signals, pointers for the handicapped drinkers. That’s why Brad always liked long-necks over cans—more to work with. Bottle caps, labels. You could make them whistle when empty. Stick one finger each in a row of empties and turn into Edward Beerbottlehands.
“Yeah?” Brad said. “You remember her name?”
Uncle Ed frowned. “Some old friend of Donna’s. Connie?”
“Yeah, Connie,” Brad said. “Better memory than mine.”
“She kinda sticks in the memory, if you know what I mean,” he said.
“She’s starting to stick in mine now,” Brad said. “I’m going to rescue her from hula-hoop hell,” he said, getting up. “Nice to meet you, Ed.” They shook hands again.
“I don’t think she needs any rescuing,” Ed said.
“Yeah, but I do,” Brad said.
On his way out of the garage, he grabbed two more beers and popped their caps, which tumbled to the cement and clattered like hula hoops.
It’s true that he was a friend of Donna’s—slightly problematic in that the level of friendship was ill-defined. They had kissed in a bar, for example. Oscar’s, a bar she worked at to help pay for college. A bar he frequented after his afternoon shift. They were like work friends, and she had surprised him when she took the step to extend whatever they were beyond their working hours (Brad counted drinking after work as being on the clock, the nightly decompression), inviting him to her backyard graduation party. Which meant, what? That she didn’t have a boyfriend, for one thing.
The kiss had been quick, back by the bathrooms, out of the line of fire from the other employees.
“You did it!” Brad said. “A fucking college graduate!” He was genuinely excited for her. She had done what he’d been—unable? Was that the word he was looking for? Incapable, uninterested? Plain out-and-out lazy?”
And in that moment, a hug turned into a kiss on the lips that turned into, “Why don’t you come to my graduation party?”
“Yeah, Connie?” He locked eyes with hers as she let the hoop slow, then fall to the ground. She stepped out of the hoop and straight towards him. The girls both clapped and groaned. He handed her a beer, and they drifted in sync out of the crowded backyard and onto the sidewalk out front, and down the street.
“You don’t need to tell me your life story,” she said. “If you’re at the plant, it’s probably like everybody else’s around here.” Her arms encircled his neck, resting her wrists on his shoulders.
“But you don’t seem like the type?”
“What type is that?” Brad leaned forward and softly whispered into her ear.
She pressed her head against his chest. The top of her hair felt warm, slightly sweaty. A Sunday in July on the edge of Detroit where cement squares outnumbered small patches of grass.
“Like the type of guy who buys a house around here and puts in his thirty years and gets a belly like Uncle Al.”
“Whose uncle is he?”
“Not mine,” she said. “He’s a perv.”
They swayed into a subtle slow dance, as if a slight breeze was causing them to sway, though there was no breeze.
“But,” he said, “what if I am? A guy like that. Not Uncle Al. I mean, a guy who settles.”
She laughed and flashed him an engagement ring. “I’m getting married in three months. I’m a girl who settles. You didn’t notice? I’ll tell him he’ll have to get me a bigger one.” She laughed.
“I’m not the most observant guy. I get easily distracted.” He kissed her, and they wrapped tight around each other. A screen door slammed, and a short bald man in a wife beater t-shirt stormed out onto his slab of patio.
“C’mon, you two. Get a fucking motel room, for crying out loud.”
And that’s what they did.
He still had the card—just a Hallmark thing he’d picked up at Rite Aid along with a six pack of cold ones. It had a lot of exclamation points. Meant for high school kids who’d be grabbing the money out of the card, not even reading it. Brad knew it was wrong that he hadn’t even given it to her. Even though he’d tossed it, he was still carrying it around inside.
Brad sat in his usual bar at his usual spot with the usual assortment of guys from the plant. The neon crown out front flashed Oscar’s, like some kind of prize, though inside it was just like any other factory bar. He had chosen it, like everyone else, for its proximity and cheap beer—just a short drive from the plant parking lot across Mound Road to Oscar’s parking lot.
Donna had gotten a job there because her father recommended it as a safe joint where no one would hassle her. It had a built-in clientele, and the tips were good. The factory workers were generous to a fault, and carelessly so on paydays. They took the idea of fair wages seriously.
Donna had already ditched Oscar’s, and everybody was missing her, not just him. A new girl was working her shift and took his order. He’d learn her name soon enough. And she’d learn his name and what kind of beer he drank. She was older, but not too much. A wedding band, Brad noticed, with a small diamond ring beneath it.
He remembered that Donna had purchased a class ring for her college graduation, or someone had purchased one for her. A golden ring with “Wayne State University” engraved around a large green stone with a logo on top of it. Garish, thick. Like the pinky ring of a Mafioso.
He called her from the bar near the bathrooms where they’d kissed.
“I just want to say I’m sorry,” he said. “I was an asshole.”
“Yeah, Uncle Al gave me the lowdown, blow by blow—he got all excited, like it’d been his idea or something. I knew that bitch could hula hoop. Guess who’s her maid of honor, by the way?”
Brad put a finger in his ear to hear her above the bar noise. He shook his head, wanting to laugh with relief, but he felt the regret of realizing he really liked her and had blown yet another chance at something. “Well, I know I’m not her best man,” he said. He wanted to say that if he was, she’d have to dance with him at the wedding, but she cut him off.
“It was an impulsive move, asking you to the party. Yeah, maybe I was hoping for some cheap thrills myself on my way out of town, just like Connie. I guess maybe your thrills are too expensive for me,” she said. Her sharp laugh cut through the thick background noise.
He was trying to smile into the phone. He didn’t know what to say.
“Are you still there?” She asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’m still here.#

Jim Ray Daniels’ latest poetry books include The Human Engine at Dawn, Wolfson Press, and Gun/Shy, Wayne State University Press. The Luck of the Fall, his most recent fiction, was published by Michigan State University Press this year. A native of Detroit, he lives in an old church on the South Side of Pittsburgh and teaches in the Alma College low-residency MFA program.